By Eva Badola
Ban claiming economic benefits on the ecological ground fails under warming ocean and declining fish stock
The bigger boats docked at Poompuhar harbour in Tamil Nadu while smaller boats operate during the fishing ban. Photo: Eva Badola
P. Silambarasan, a fisherman of Poompuhar village in Tamil Nadu every year anxiously awaits the end of the fishing ban. His fishing village, Poompuhar is a tiny dot in the 1,200 miles long eastern sea coast. The coastal line passes through Tamil Nadu as one amongst the four major Indian states with the Bay of Bengal to its east. Tamil Nadu with 608 marine fishing villages spread across 13 coastal districts, supports the livelihood of 10.07 lakh fishermen. In 2015, the Indian government decided to extend the annual fishing ban period from 45 to 61 days i.e. 15 April till 15 June, ubiquitously along India’s eastern coast. Two years later in 2017, Tamil Nadu decided to implement the ban in its territorial waters also. The ban disallowed mechanized crafts and powerful motorboats while allowing country boats and motorized boats with engine capacity up to 10 horsepower to sail and fish within three nautical miles off the coast. The ban period claims fishes to breed and artisanal fishermen to fish uninterruptedly in their traditional grounds.
Despite its promised benefits, Tamil Nadu fishermen resented the decision strongly. Fisher’s groups and associations such as the South Indian Fishermen Welfare Association showed their disagreement on the ban timings which overlook the geographical specifications of Tamil Nadu. The 61 days ban period is not the first of its kind. Initially, a 45-days’ annual fishing ban was implemented by Tamil Nadu under Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1983. It was criticized for not having enough representation of the Traditional Panchayat-a local governance system in every fishing hamlet of Tamil Nadu- in decision making. Fast forward, in 2017 Tamil Nadu government decided to extend the fish ban days, once again ignoring fishermen’s plea.
Ban further squeezes down already squeezed fishing days
The East coast of India along the Bay of Bengal - where Tamil Nadu resides-is one amongst the six most cyclone-prone areas in the world. Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal have intensified over the years due to the continuous warming of the Indian Ocean. The surface sea temperature is continuously rising along the Tamil Nadu coast in the past 105 years and the increase is more pronounced in the past 20 years. Tamil Nadu with a distinct shape of its coastline directly exposes its coastal communities to cyclones. The vulnerability accentuates as 50% of its fishing hamlets are residing within two km from the coastline. Tamil Nadu suffers one or two severe cyclones on average during monsoon (October till December) and the sea becomes rough for fishing during these three months. Furthermore, fishermen experiencing climatic disturbances in the rough sea have added two more months-January and February.
“In the past two years, the air currents have become stronger and lasting longer- till the end of February, forbidding us to navigate farther distances in the seas” -Silambarasan
The 61 days fishing ban and approximately five months of the rough season leave Tamil Nadu fishermen with less than five months to fishing. The addition of non-fishing months in crisis to their survival strategy. In 2020, Central Government lifted the ban on 31 May - almost 14 days in advance to boost the sinking fisheries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kaviyzhan- a fisherman from Poompuhar mentioned that the relaxation in days was hardly helpful as they had already lost 21 days indicating the nation-wide lockdown observed from 24 March-14 April due to the pandemic.
Ban undermines declining fish stock
The fishing ban observed interests of artisanal fishermen to fish within three nautical miles off the coast uninterrupted by bigger vessels. It was assumed that traditional fishermen do not venture beyond three nautical. But post-disaster development after the 2004 Tsunami, in Tamil Nadu; technology has changed fishing methods dramatically. During tsunami rehabilitation, NGOs extensively distributed boats, engines, and fishing gears and flooded with compensation packages by the Indian government for the replacement of fishing crafts. Fishing hamlets in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu having merely 20 -30 boats prior tsunami is now possessing close to 100 boats. With years passing, fishing technology revolutionized but simultaneously a drastic decline in fish availability is also noticed. Many fishermen mentioned on the fishing grounds that have moved further offshore. Silambarasan’s neighbour Rajendra after Tsunami replaced his catamaran with a 15 feet boat utilizing post-tsunami compensation. He informs- “In the past 16 years fishes in the local sea have become so scanty that I had to update my boat’s engine capacity from 7 to 12 and then 15 horsepowers to reach farther fishing grounds”. With dwindling fish catch along the Tamil Nadu coast; artisanal fishermen are compelled to motorize their boat to try their luck beyond three nautical miles.
“Granting freedom to fish within 3 nautical miles has become pointless; simply because we do not have sufficient fish stock left in our local sea. The govt. must consider increasing the fishing distance of at least 5 nautical miles during the ban for artisanal fishermen” - Rajendra
Rajendra holds a valid point on declining fish stock. Dinesh from Nagapattinam revealed how Purse seiner catching 40 tons of Indian oil sardines during peak fishing season in 2016 ended with merely 15 tons in 2017. He tells “Each of our crew members that usually earned rupees 3,00,000 annually ended with one-sixth of income from sardines in 2017”. In the same year, The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute reported a 36% drop in oil sardine landings in Tamil Nadu.
“If the ban has been so effective to replenish our fish stock over the past two decades, why are we still facing an economic crisis due to the dearth of fishes?” - Dinesh
A freshly caught Seer fish by fisherman; apparently fishermen are pushing their watercraft beyond their traditional territories in search of fishes. Photo: Eva Badola
Why Ban may not help Sardines and many fish stock to replenish?
The ban duration was extended believing that when bigger boats with larger nets will not fish, juvenile fishes will thrive and adult fishes spawn. Consequently, fishermen will reap maximum benefits after the ban. But the Experts’ Technical Committee reviewed the ban duration and submitted a report to the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries of India in 2014. That clearly indicated no scientific evidence exists upon the direct role of the fishing ban on fish stock recovery. The report could not identify a common peak spawning period for all fishes, as different fish species have different spawning months. Even a fish species can spawn at varied locations in different times. Therefore spawning may not be a justifiable reason to impose ban. India’s eastern coastal states except Tamil Nadu receive south-west monsoon. Tamil Nadu, instead gets bountiful rainfall due to northeast monsoon from October till December. The officials simply assumed that monsoon season coincides with peak spawning periods of fishes, but unconsidered the fact that Tamil Nadu has different climatic conditions amongst the eastern coastal states. In Tamil Nadu, the Centre of Advanced Study in Marine biology, Annamalai University assessed 95 marine species and found only 17 of them spawning during the ban period. The peak spawning of commercially valuable Indian oil sardines was observed in July; immediately after the ban gets uplifted. Similarly, the Indian prawn, one amongst the highest commercial prawn species, spawns majorly in September. Overall there are 50 % higher chances for commercially valued species to breed in the northeast monsoon. Chinnal from Poompuhar and Narayana Chitravel from Thirumullaivasal- a village in Tamil Nadu- shared similar observations. During the ban Chinnal and Narayana resort to fishing crabs like red-spotted swimming crabs, mud crabs, blue crabs, etc. in the Cauvery estuary and Thirumullaivasal estuary, respectively.
“All these crab varieties, shrimps and mollusks breed around September and October while the ban is imposed from April till June. We want our fish stock to replenish but ban timings are neither favouring us nor the fish breeding”, - Chinnal and Narayana
Artisanal fishermen detangle prawns and small fishes from the fishing net while narrating their experiences. Photo: Eva Badola
Scope for Improvisation
The ban is justified as a safety measure for fishers not to venture in the rough seas. But since Tamil Nadu experiences rainfall during October-December, here ban duration is the summer season with the calmest sea idle for fishing. This suggests a common umbrella ban period may not be appropriate for the entire east coastal states of India. Increment in the number of fishing ban days without changing the timings of the ban is not that effective for fish breeding. The links between the ban period and fishes’ breeding must be established. It is also adding livelihood strain on already climate stressed Tamil Nadu fishers. Ultimately, a shift on fishing ban timings from the current 15 April-16 June to Tamil Nadu’s monsoon timings- October to December is worth considering.
The author is an environmentalist and a recipient of SBI Youth for India Fellow-Leadership Award (2018-19) affiliated with M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation, for working on marine plastic pollution. The views expressed are personal to the author.